Of Assassinations in Dubai and Ideological Narratives

In the ancient times before the blogosphere, when even Internet forums were still a novelty, and blogs nonexistent, one occasionally ran across mainstream media types who would hilariously claim, with a perfectly straight face, that their news reporting was “objective.”  Nowadays such specimens have become a great rarity, seldom encountered outside of circus side shows.  Even the lowliest of trolls are now well aware of the existence of what is referred to as the “narrative.”  The narrative requires that reality be “adjusted” to conform to a particular ideological point of view.  These adjustments are seldom applied in the form of blatant lies.  In these days of instant Internet fact checking, it has simply become too risky.  Rather, one only reports stories that conform to the narrative, perhaps after trimming them of certain “irrelevant details” and adding some “interpretation” by “experts” to make sure readers don’t miss the point.  In other words, the story is massaged until, as the Germans put it, “Es passt in den Kram” (It fits in with the rest of the crap).

Sometimes events of such a shocking nature occur that even the most carefully crafted narratives must be adjusted to account for them.  One such event was, of course, the demise of Communism.  As one might expect, it left the narrative of the “progressive left” in a shambles.  A new, somewhat ramshackle version had to be cobbled together, from such ideological flotsam and jetsam as bobbed to the surface after the Soviet Titanic slid beneath the waves, combined with some interesting new twists.  One of the more amusing of these is the left’s increasingly steamy love affair with the more extreme Islamists.  It seems odd on the face of it that ideologues who once posed as champions of women’s liberation and gay rights, and vehemently denounced the agenda of the Christian right, are now found in such a warm embrace with misogynistic, homophobe religious fanatics.  However, Homo sapiens has never really been a rational animal.  We are simply better than the other animals at using reason to satisfy our emotional needs.  When it comes to emotional needs, there are those among us whose tastes run to “saving” the rest of us and making us all “happy” by stuffing the messianic world view du jour down our collective throats.  These are the familiar types who love to strike heroic poses on the “moral high ground.”  Marxism scratched their emotional itch admirably for many years, but has lately fallen out of fashion.  When it did, it left something of a psychological vacuum in its wake.  Mercifully, no brand new surefire prescription for saving humanity was waiting in the wings to take its place.  Instead, radical Islamism has rushed in to fill the vacuum.  When it comes to messianic world views, it is, for the time being at least, the only game in town.  Incongruous successor to Marxism that it is, it still scratches that itch.  The “progressive left” jumped on board.  It should really come as no surprise.  After all, back in the day, they managed to convince themselves that they were “saving the world” by collaborating in the mass murders of Pol Pot and Ho chi Minh, not to mention Stalin. 

Artifacts of this Islamist – leftist love affair are not hard to find.  When it comes to the European news media, for example, it takes the form of anti-Semitism Lite, often euphemistically referred to as “anti-Zionism.”  It manifests itself in the form of obsessive, one-sided bashing of Israel for the slightest real or imagined infractions of the left’s version of “morality,” combined with a the turning of a blind eye to the far more egregious misdeeds of her enemies.  For example, deliberate attempts by the Islamists to murder Israeli civilians with barrages of rockets are reported with as much emotional detachment as the next day’s weather, but grossly exaggerated accounts of atrocities in Gaza and “blood libel” fables about the harvesting of organs from Palestinian victims become the stuff of persistent propaganda campaigns without the slightest shred of proof. 

The process is nicely illustrated by the manner in which the news about the recent assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai has been reported in Europe.  There, as in the US, the “progressive left” tends to be over-represented in the legacy media.  It is overwhelmingly the case in Germany, where no equivalent of our talk radio or influential bloggers exists to restore a semblance of balance.  Consider, for example, the coverage in Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading news magazine.  A story about the assassination that appeared last week began with the ominous headline, “How Israel Covered Mossad’s Trail.”  The opening blurb reads, “The Israeli secret service will neither ‘confirm nor deny’ its involvement in the murder of Hamas weapons dealer Mabhouh.  However, the Dubai assassin who went by the cover name Michael Bodenheimer left a trail behind him:  In Cologne and in Israeli Herzliya.”  The rest of the article is a collection of circumstantial evidence combined with suggestions that the crime had all the earmarks of a Mossad hit. 

The “news” here is hardly that Mossad wasn’t involved in the hit.  It’s the disconnect between the way Spiegel reported on this story, which happened to fit its anti-Israel narrative, and the way it reports on similar stories that don’t.  Take for example, the involvement of Al Qaeda in 911.  This was a story that most decidedly did not fit Spiegel’s pro-Islamist narrative at the time.  It also came at an inconvenient time, as Spiegel was in the forefront of a quasi-racist German jihad against the United States that reached levels of obsessive viciousness at about the time of 911 that would scarcely be credible to Americans who can’t read German.   Nevertheless, all the same circumstantial evidence was there, complete with a trail leading back to Germany.  In this case, however, instead of accepting the obvious, Spiegel’s editors dug in their heels, and tried to create an alternate version of reality.  They began what I referred to at the time as the “Spielchen mit den Beweisen,” or “cute little game with the proofs,” coming up with ever more contrived reasons to dismiss the increasing mountain of evidence pointing to Al Qaeda’s guilt.  Even when bin Laden appeared on tape, practically jumping up and down and screaming, “We did it!  We did it!” the editors refused to throw in the towel.  They were nothing if not stubborn.  Reality was what they said it was, and the rest of the world be damned!  They pointed out that (aha, oho), the translators of the videotape had been in the employ of the evil Americans.  They produced their own “translators” from the enormous pool of experts they have constantly at their beck and call, ready to “prove” the most absurd concoctions.  These came up with a “corrected” translation on demand which (surprise, surprise) exonerated bin Laden.  Only after a chorus of native Arab speakers in countries that could hardly be portrayed as “friends” of the United States pointed out that Spiegel’s “translators” were sucking canal water, did the editors finally give over, muttering dark comments about the “exegesis of videotapes.” 

In a word, then, as far as ideologues are concerned, be they on the left or the right of the political spectrum, the “real world” is what fits the narrative.  When it comes to dishing out blame, let him beware whom the ideological shoe fits.

UPDATE:  It’s odd that Spiegel didn’t pick up on this.  Looks like prime material for another “Spielchen mit den Beweisen” to me.

Ethiopian Airlines Crash a Terrorist Act?

DEBKAfile claims it was.  Their record for accuracy has been a bit spotty, but occasionally they scoop the big news organizations. In any case, we’ve had the forensic capability to distinguish crashes caused by lightning strikes from those resulting from explosive devices for a long time now. The people running the investigation should know one way or the other in the not too distant future. When they do, I hope they will inform the rest of us.

The Eunuchbomber: “Spilling his Guts” without Torture?

Apparently Christmas Day bomber Abdulmutallab is a walking treasure trove of information about his fellow terrorists. According to FOXNews,

The Nigerian man accused of trying to use a bomb hidden in his underwear to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas has been cooperating with investigators since last week and has provided fresh intelligence in multiple terrorism investigations, officials said Tuesday.

Could it be that Cheney and the rest of the Rabbit People are exaggerating when they claim that we need to torture people to be “secure?”

Sam Harris, Karen Armstrong, and the God Fraud

Do I detect a note of testiness in fellow atheist Sam Harris’ response to one Karen Armstrong, one of those paragons of goodness and enlightenment who would have us believe that every outrage ever committed by religious bigots since the dawn of time was just the result of a “misunderstanding?” Well, I must admit that, on rare occasions, I too am capable of losing my habitual air of supercilious philosophical detachment if sufficiently provoked. This, however, was not one of those occasions, probably because Sam took the trouble to post Ms. Armstrong’s reply. As he no doubt recognized, she is such a perfect parody of herself that one can only smile.

Of course, Ms. Armstrong is not alone. There are legions of others like her with the rare intellectual gifts necessary to understand that all the slaughter and mayhem perpetrated in the name of religion was just the result of a regrettable misunderstanding. They have arrived on the scene just in time to enlighten the rest of us with the news that they have discovered the “real” meaning of Islam, Christianity, and any other religion you might care to mention. Astoundingly, it happens to be in perfect accord with the warm, fuzzy treacle one usually associates with “progressive” ideology.

Think of it! When all the collective brainpower of the Christian Church assembled at the Council of Constance decided it was their religious duty to burn Jan Huss at the stake, thereby launching a series of wars that devastated Europe for decades, it was all a misunderstanding. When the followers of Huss, whose every act was an expression of their religious belief, launched their formidable battle wagons against their foes, leaving death and scorched earth in their wake, because they insisted on celebrating Communion in a way not approved by the pope, it was all a misunderstanding. When a later pope appointed Torquemada to lead the Spanish Inquisition, launching a regime of pious torture and oppression, it was all a misunderstanding.  When Urban II preached the Crusade at Clermont seconded by virtually every divine of any note in Christendom, launching a series of wars that would result in the deaths of millions and misery and devastation for millions more, it was all a misunderstanding.  When Mohammed launched his armies on a devastating path of conquest that ended in the violent seizure of Iran, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the rest of north Africa, Spain, and a host of other countries, he just “misunderstood” his own religion.  It goes without saying that bin Laden and all his followers, steeped as they are in the teachings of the prophet, and claiming as they do that all their acts are inspired by his teachings, have, once again, misunderstood him.

Why not carry this a bit further?  Is it not obvious in the light of Ms. Armstrong’s wise teachings that Hitler committed his crimes because he just didn’t understand the true teachings of Nazism?  As for Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Il-sung, why, they only thought they were acting in the name of Communism when they killed 100 million people.  It was all a misunderstanding. 

Of course, we all know the other side of this coin.  Whenever some unsavory character guilty of deeds sufficiently horrific to win him historical infamy can be shown, truthfully or not, to have been an atheist, why, he did it because he was an atheist, regardless of the reasons he gave for his actions himself, and all atheists are guilty of his crime by association.


The Rabbit People and their Eternal War

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer chimes in on the latest Cheney-Obama dustup:

Second, the former Vice President makes the clearly untrue claim that the President — who is this nation’s commander in chief — needs to realize we are at War. I don’t think anyone realizes this very hard reality more than President Obama. In his inaugural, the President said “our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”

Charming! The rabbit people on the left now agree with the rabbit people on the right that “we’re at war.” The only problem is that we’re not. We are being attacked by an international terrorist organization. They carried out one successful attack on our homeland nearly a decade ago that cost the lives of 3,000 people give or take. In the intervening years we have lost more than 100 times that many in traffic accidents, not to mention a far greater number of serious injuries. Nearly a hundred times that number have been killed by handguns. Shouldn’t we declare war on automobiles and handguns as long as we’re at it? From the time of the Decembrists until the October Revolution, Russia was constantly under attack by a host of anarchists, social revolutionaries, Bolsheviks and other assorted radical terrorists. They succeeded in assassinating Czar Alexander II and many other important government officials. Dynamite gained the nickname “Russian candy,” yet it never occurred to the Russians or the rest of the world, for that matter, that Russia was “at war” with these people. Anarchist terrorism was pervasive in Europe and the United States in the last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century. The terrorists succeeded in murdering French President Carnot in 1894, bombing the Greenwich Observatory in London in the same year, and assassinating President McKinley in 1901. They carried out lesser known indiscriminate bombings in theatres, marketplaces and a host of other venues, killing thousands in the process. It never occurred to any of the countries involved that they were “at war.”

Now we face a similar threat, and the rabbit people insist we are, in fact, “at war.” Indeed, they get red in the face and begin frothing at the mouth if anyone begs to differ with them. I, for one, beg to differ with them. One always finds these same zealots howling about “Liberty” and “Freedom.” They have no clue what those words really mean. War, in the United States and elsewhere, has always implied the suppression of Liberty and freedom. Our wars have commonly been accompanied by the suspension of habeus corpus, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.  In real wars those steps may become necessary because our survival is at stake.  The battle against Al-Qaeda is not a war.  These enemies do not threaten our survival except in the dreams of the most timorous of the rabbit people, and the surrender of our liberties that their phoney “war” implies really represents an abject surrender to our enemies in the name of perserving our security at all costs.  The proper slogan for the rabbit people is not “Liberty or Death!”  It is “Security for Me, and Damn the Rest!” 

Cowards that they are at heart, they are quite willing to surrender every freedom our forefathers fought for if only the government will keep them safe.  By destroying our Liberties, they concede victory to our enemies, lowering us to their level, all in the name of a false security.  When a couple of former Gitmo prisoners turn up in the Al-Qaeda organization in Yemen, all we hear from them is loud shouts of “We told you so!”  Forgotten are the words of William Blackstone, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”  One commonly finds these heroes thumping their Bibles, but forgotten, too, is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which God tells Abraham that He would have spared these entire cities for the sake of ten righteous men.  Forgotten are the very reasons it even occurred to our Founding Fathers to object to arrest without due process of law.

It never occurs to the rabbit people as they chant their “war” mantra that any of the prisoners held for years now at Gitmo could actually be innocent.  For them, they are all so many convicted terrorists.  Tell me, what justifies them in coming to this conclusion?  Have the prisoners at Gitmo ever been given the right to a fair and speedy trial?  Have they even been allowed to stand before military tribunals?  How is it that we have arrived at this absolute certainty that they are all terrorists?  The process was certainly unheard of at the founding of our Republic.  By what new miracle of jurisprudence have the rabbit people concluded that we “know” all the prisoners at Gitmo are guilty, and fuzzy-headed thinking about fair trials be damned?

The rabbit people always assume that they will be the ones sitting in the seat of judgment.  It never occurs to them that the precedents they are setting now may well come back to haunt them, and the rest of us as well.  Let the rabbit people recall some familiar but wise words:  “What goes around comes around.”

On Religion; The Consequences of Believing in Things that are not True

H. L. Mencken once said, “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” In general, I suspect he was right. In an ideal world, one could simply point out that belief in a God or gods is irrational, as Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Sam Harris have lately so eloquently tried to do. The rest of mankind would then recognize that their beliefs in supernatural beings were untrue, and drop them, sparing the rest of us a great deal of grief. Alas, the species being what it is, that isn’t about to happen. Quoting the Sage of Baltimore once again, “The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” At best, we can point out what those costs actually are, in the hope that a happy few will come to their senses. In the case of religion, the costs of believing in something that is untrue are abundantly obvious in our day. One need only recall the fate of the twin towers, and the almost daily images we see of the mayhem caused by suicide bombers. We can follow Mencken’s advice about the other fellow’s religion when, as in the case of Christianity today, its adherents are rather less fanatical than they were at, say, the time of the Hussite Wars, or the crusade against the Albigensians, or the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, or in the many centuries during which tens of thousands of innocent women were burned and hung as witches. However, when, as is the case with Islam today, the fever breaks out anew, and the other fellow concludes that his God wishes him to commence killing the rest of us and to stuff his religion down our throats by seizing control of state power, we can hardly afford to look the other way.

There are adherents of every religion whose tastes do not happen to run to slaughtering their fellow beings. Such is the case with Islam today, and, in accord with a long established historical pattern, they assure us that those who are actively trying to kill us are not “real Moslems.” That is little comfort to the rest of us, as those same murderers assure us that they are the only true Moslems, and are not behind hand at quoting line and verse of their scriptures to justify their mayhem. In the end, they attack the rest of us because of their religious beliefs, whether others happen to interpret those beliefs differently or not. It seems to me that it would be safer for all concerned if, rather than arguing over the details of beliefs that are fundamentally untrue, one jettisoned them root and branch in favor of a more probable point of view.

One can find a typical example of the religious outlook of one of the “pacific” believers in Islam at Harry’s Place. The article is thoughtful and well worth reading. It contains most of the usual rationalizations. For example, as already noted above, it seeks to “excommunicate” the adherents of violence, referring to them as “Islamists,” rather than followers of the true Islam. The author informs us that, “… there is no mention of statehood in the Quran, nor are there pre‐ordained political principles prescribed in any of the Islamic holy texts that Muslims are required to follow. Islamists, however, will argue that Muslims are only allowed to follow and participate in one type of political system, and that all other political systems and ideologies are ‘un‐Islamic’. This is quite unprecedented and lacks historical or scriptural justification.” This is a dubious assertion, and becomes less credible the more one reads the Moslem scriptures. Do they not call for different rates of taxation for Moslems and non-Moslems? Do they not call for specific forms of punishment for given crimes when the specification of such punishments is a function of the state and the political system it is based on? Were not early Moslem visitors to England mystified by the British parliament, noting that all had been set down once and for all in the Moslem holy books, making such functions unnecessary? In a word, the worthy author may assure us that his view of Islamic principle is different, but Islamic practice since the time of the prophet has been something entirely different from the benign picture he seeks to paint for us.

In his closing lines the author assures us, “Despite the fact that since 9/11, 7/7 and the Madrid bombings Islamism has come to dominate the world’s headlines in the West, the vast majority of the world’s Muslims continue to believe Islam is not a political ideology and do not pursue the revolutionary goals that Islamists have projected onto it. In the Quran Islam is described as ‘Deen‐al‐Islam’ which translates as ‘religion of peace’.” Be that as it may, wherever Islam has gained the upper hand, it has served as the incubator from which the terrorist brood has hatched. For that matter, it is absurd to refer to it as a “religion of peace.” In what manner, after all, did it become the dominant religion in so many countries? Did it overcome its rivals in Arabia peacefully? Did it gain control of Egypt peacefully? Did it gain control of Syria peacefully? Did it gain control of Iran peacefully? Did it gain control of what is now Turkey peacefully? Did it gain control of North Africa peacefully? Did it gain the upper hand in Spain and Sicily and then lose it again by peaceful means? What about Palestine? Are its current claims to control that territory based on an original, peaceful occupation of the land, or a seizure from the previous owners by force?

One might prefer Christianity to Islam because its scriptures seem to be more genuinely amenable to the separation of church and state that our author assures us characterizes the “real Islam” as well. Unlike Islam, it has produced some very substantial thinkers to vindicate that point of view, such as Roger Williams and Marsilius of Padua. It is for that reason that I consider attempts to limit Muslim encroachment, such as we saw manifested in a recent Swiss election, in a rather more positive light than those who seek to simplistically portray it as an attack on “freedom of religion.” When we see vicious acts of terrorism worldwide justified in the name of Islam, it takes willful self-deception to conclude that all this has nothing to do with the “real” Islam, and that there will be no social or political consequences of treating it as “just another religion.”

In the end, it seems to me that life would be a great deal more pleasant for all of us if we stopped basing our actions on erroneous beliefs in supernatural beings in general, and started basing them on an interpretation of reality that, if not certain, is at least not palpably false.

Wild West Conditions in Germany

In German, that would be “Wild West Züstände.” Translation of the opening graph:

What began as a peaceful protest ended in a riot. Leftist demonstrators threw stones and bottles during protests against a march by the NPD (neo-Nazis). Police officials felt they had been “massively attacked.” The police fired one or two warning shots.

Of course, the level of mayhem wasn’t in the same league with our town hall meetings here in the US, but things do seem to be heating up over there.

Nuclear Strategery

Jonathan Tepperman has an interesting post on the Newsweek site entitled, “Why Obama should Learn to Love the Bomb.” According to Tepperman, “A growing and compelling body of research suggests that nuclear weapons may not, in fact, make the world more dangerous, as Obama and most people assume.” Yes, and there was “a growing and compelling body of research” in 1914 that suggested the great powers were so economically dependent on each other they would never risk going to war. Tepperman continues, “The argument that nuclear weapons can be agents of peace as well as destruction rests on two deceptively simple observations. First, nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. Second, there’s never been a nuclear, or even a nonnuclear, war between two states that possess them.” That’s true, and the argument that possession of nuclear weapons reduces the chances of war between states that possess them is certainly plausible. However, the fact that, for example, there was never a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union does not mean that the risk of such an exchange was zero. It is more likely that we dodged a bullet.

An all out conventional war between India and Pakistan would certainly result in great loss of life. An all out nuclear war would be, according to Tepperman, less likely. It would also be more costly in terms of loss of life, not to mention economic damage. Perhaps, then, a reasonable metric for assessing whether nuclear weapons make us more or less secure would be risk of war times likely human and economic cost. The problem with such a neat formula is that it would be impossible to predict or to agree on the magnitude of the different factors. For example, it was widely assumed during the cold war that a general nuclear exchange would result in the annihilation of the populations of the US and Soviet Union. However, I doubt the leaders on either side really believed that. Various attempts were made to calculate likely outcomes, but they were generally flawed by the ideological predispositions of those making the estimates.

Let’s consider what else Tepperman has to say:

Even the craziest tin-pot dictator is forced to accept that war with a nuclear state is unwinnable and thus not worth the effort. As (Berkeley Professor Kenneth) Waltz puts it, “Why fight if you can’t win and might lose everything?”

I’m not so sure that the craziest tin-pot dictator would come to such a logical conclusion. However, the statement as it stands is almost irrelevant. I suspect a nuclear exchange is far more likely to result from a miscalculation, accident, or loss of control to a rogue actor than any premeditated, deliberate attack.

Meanwhile, the nuclear powers have scrupulously avoided direct combat, and there’s very good reason to think they always will. There have been some near misses, but a close look at these cases is fundamentally reassuring—because in each instance, very different leaders all came to the same safe conclusion.

This is wrong on the face of it. Always is a long time. As long as there are nuclear weapons, there will be a finite risk of a nuclear exchange. Therefore, if states with nuclear arsenals continue to exist into the indefinite future, there will eventually be a nuclear exchange. The question is not whether it will happen, because it certainly will. The question is whether its cost, when it does happen, will be greater or less than the cost of the, presumably more frequent, conventional wars that would have occurred in the absence of nuclear arsenals. Similarly, as long as sufficient special nuclear material (SNM), such as U235 or Pu239, exists to make nuclear weapons, there will be a finite risk of it falling into the hands of non-state actors, or terrorists if you will. From this we must conclude that a terrorist nuclear attack is also inevitable. It is not a question of if. It is a question of when. It may be tomorrow, or it may be a thousand years from now, but it will happen. I rather suspect it will be sooner rather than later.

…in 1957, Mao blithely declared that a nuclear war with America wouldn’t be so bad because even “if half of mankind died … the whole world would become socialist.” Pyongyang and Tehran support terrorism—but so did Moscow and Beijing. And as for seeming suicidal, Michael Desch of the University of Notre Dame points out that Stalin and Mao are the real record holders here: both were responsible for the deaths of some 20 million of their own citizens. Yet when push came to shove, their regimes balked at nuclear suicide, and so would today’s international bogeymen.

That is an unwarranted assumption. In any case, as noted above, it is irrelevant, because the nuclear danger from accident or miscalculation is far greater than that from deliberate use.

Even if the Pakistani state did collapse entirely—the nightmare scenario—the chance of a Taliban bomb would still be remote. Desch argues that the idea that terrorists “could use these weapons radically underestimates the difficulty of actually operating a modern nuclear arsenal. These things need constant maintenance and they’re very easy to disable. So the idea that these things could be stuffed into a gunnysack and smuggled across the Rio Grande is preposterous.

Here, Tepperman’s “expert,” Michael Desch of Notre Dame, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One wonders what sort of “constant maintenance” he has in mind. The basic design principles of both gun and implosion type weapons are well known. They certainly require maintenance occasionally, but “constant maintenance?” I think not. Any non-state actor gaining possession of an intact nuke will have plenty of time to use it. The idea that nukes are easy to disable is also poppycock. You can make the firing set as clever as you please, but the SNM would still be there. If you didn’t have an explosives guy capable of jury rigging the device, you could still simply cannibalize the material from two nukes and make a simple, but very effective device. Recall that our physicists were so confident that the gun type Little Boy would work that it was dropped without prior testing. The computer modeling tools available to anyone now are infinitely better than the rudimentary mathematical tools they had then. Building a crude bomb is simply not that difficult. As for smuggling the weapon in a gunnysack, Tepperman is right. A terrorist would have to be brain dead to even attempt it. Unfortunately, smuggling a complete weapon is completely unnecessary. It would be much simpler, and just as effective, to smuggle the SNM in small bits, and assemble it into a weapon at the target. The chances that we will be able to detect any of the material before the weapon actually goes off are virtually nil.

The risk of an arms race—with, say, other Persian Gulf states rushing to build a bomb after Iran got one—is a bit harder to dispel. Once again, however, history is instructive. “In 64 years, the most nuclear-weapons states we’ve ever had is 12,” says Waltz. “Now with North Korea we’re at nine. That’s not proliferation; that’s spread at glacial pace.” Nuclear weapons are so controversial and expensive that only countries that deem them absolutely critical to their survival go through the extreme trouble of acquiring them. That’s why South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan voluntarily gave theirs up in the early ’90s, and why other countries like Brazil and Argentina dropped nascent programs.

Perhaps. However, I do not find the existence of a maximum of 12 nuclear states as comforting as Tepperman.

Put this all together and nuclear weapons start to seem a lot less frightening. So why have so few people in Washington recognized this? Most of us suffer from what Desch calls a nuclear phobia, an irrational fear that’s grounded in good evidence—nuclear weapons are terrifying—but that keeps us from making clear, coldblooded calculations about just how dangerous possessing them actually is. The logic of nuclear peace rests on a scary bargain: you accept a small chance that something extremely bad will happen in exchange for a much bigger chance that something very bad—conventional war—won’t happen. This may well be a rational bet to take, especially if that first risk is very small indeed. But it’s a tough case to make to the public.

Here, Tepperman makes some good points. The real issue is one of risk. Unfortunately, for the reasons cited above, I rather suspect he is seriously underestimating it. Be that as it may, assuming one can really get a good handle on the actual risk, what he says makes sense.

Given this reality, Washington would be wiser to focus on making the world we actually live in—the nuclear world—safer. This involves several steps, few of which the Obama administration has mentioned but which it should emphasize in its Nuclear Posture Review due at the end of the year. To start, the logic of deterrence works only if everybody knows who has a nuclear arsenal and thus can’t be attacked—as Peter Sellers puts it in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, “The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!”

Probably true. Unilateral nuclear disarmament would certainly be suicidal. Reducing our arsenal to the point that potential enemies might find the risk of retaliation acceptable is almost equally so.

Chris Bodenner at Sully’s blog thinks a piece by Peter Scoblic at TNR’s website “scalpels” Tepperman’s piece. I think not. It’s more in the pious platitude here, anecdotal evidence there, preaching a foregone conclusion to the choir style that has become the stock in trade at TNR lately. They have seen better days (when Sully was editor, in fact. He has seen better days, too). One hopes the better days will return.

Rapid Response to Terrorist Nuclear Attack

I wish I were seeing a lot more articles like this one (hat tip Instapundit) that appeared in New Scientist, concerning preparedness for a terrorist attack with homemade nuclear weapons. I also wish the political powers that be would take them seriously. The nuclear attacks on Japan were not an historical anomaly. Nuclear weapons will be used again. The only question is when. “When” may well be when terrorists with the will to launch a nuclear attack acquire enough of the special nuclear material, in the form of plutonium or uranium, necessary to make a bomb. Once they have it, it is certain they will be able to make an effective nuclear device. The only question is how effective. On the low end of the spectrum, they could make a super dirty bomb by simply assembling a critical mass. On the high end, they could build a device with an explosive yield equal to or greater than that of the weapon dropped on Hiroshima. Regardless, when an attack occurs, we should be prepared to act swiftly and effectively, because thousands or tens of thousands of lives may be hanging in the balance.

Many of those whose lives could be saved by an effective rapid response will be those suffering from radiation poisoning. The effects of radiation poisoning are described here, and additional information on effects, symptoms, treatment, etc., may be found here, here and here. Note that death from radiation poisoning usually occurs because radiation damage renders our cells incapable of reproducing. This is especially critical in the case of cells that normally reproduce rapidly, such as white blood cells, or the cells lining our gut. If they are unable to reproduce, the number of these cells in our body may become depleted, typically in a matter of a few weeks, to the point that we succumb to infection and other secondary effects of their loss. As noted here, without treatment, “Total body exposure of 400 roentgens (or 4 Gy) causes radiation sickness and death in half the individuals.” However, the effectiveness of the techniques we have developed to treat radiation poisoning has increased very substantially in the last few decades. Using these techniques, victims might be stabilized and kept alive during the few critical weeks needed for their cells to recover the ability to reproduce. A great many of those who would have died could be saved. Related information may be found in the links noted above, as well as here, and much additional information may be found on the web. In short, if we respond effectively, we will be able to save a great many lives of those who would have been written off as hopeless cases 20 years ago. We must be prepared.

Good people are working on these problems in government agencies, universities, technical societies, etc. We need to listen to them, recognize the urgency of the problem, take action, and be ready.